Western RoundUp: Hidden Gems, Vol. 2
At the beginning of this year, I wrote a column on three Westerns I consider “Hidden Gems,” lesser-known yet very entertaining movies.
Here’s a trio of three more Westerns I’ve really enjoyed which aren’t widely known; they’re all quite well done, and even the least of these films rewards the viewer with memorable characterizations and surprises.
Roughshod (Mark Robson, 1949)
One of the films in my original “Hidden Gems” column, The Desperado (1954), was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who also wrote the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947) under another name, Geoffrey Homes.
Mainwaring turns up again here as the co-screenwriter, along with Hugo Butler, of one of my favorite lesser-known Westerns, RKO’s Roughshod. Roughshod was well directed by Mark Robson, who launched his career a few years previously making compact but spooky Val Lewton thrillers such as The Seventh Victim (1943) and The Ghost Ship (1943).
As they assist the women, Clay tentatively begins to develop a relationship with gorgeous, worldly Mary (Grahame), while events push the other ladies to make significant choices about their futures.
It’s not all smooth going, however, as a trio of killers, led by an escaped convict named Lednov (John Ireland), are in the area, and Lednov is hunting for Clay.
The cast is excellent, and the film particularly made me wish that Sterling made more than a small handful of Westerns, as he seems quite at home in this genre. Jarman, a year ahead of making Rio Grande (1950) for John Ford, is likewise excellent as Clay’s loyal young brother, whose determination to help Clay at a critical moment belies his age.
The film mixes pleasant moments centered on the characters’ relationships, such as Mary teaching Steve to read, with a few scenes which are quite dark, due in large part to Ireland’s believability as a deranged killer. Director Robson handles the material so capably that, just as with Sterling, I was left wishing he had made more Westerns
With the exception of a few interiors and process shots, Roughshod was filmed entirely on location in the Sierras. Joseph Biroc’s evocative cinematography beautifully captures a “fresh air” feel in which the viewer can almost smell the dust and the trees. The excellent location work gives the film an authentic kind of “you are there” immediacy which helps enable the viewer to be deeply immersed in the story.
Roughshod is available on DVD from the Warner Archive.
Dragoon Wells Massacre (Harold D. Schuster, 1957)
Actor-writer Warren Douglas penned the screenplay for Dragoon Wells Massacre, using one of the genre’s most familiar plot conventions, the disparate band of travelers under attack from Indians.
John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is one of the earliest and best examples of this theme, which encourages filmmakers to simultaneously focus on both action and character development. As with other regularly used Western plot devices, the fun is in watching a film’s unique take.
Dragoon Wells Massacre is blessed with a terrific cast, headed by two excellent leading men, Dennis O’Keefe and Barry Sullivan.
O’Keefe and Sullivan play polar opposites, with O’Keefe as a soldier who is the lone survivor of an Indian attack, while Sullivan is an accused criminal being taken to trial by a marshal (Trevor Bardette). Jack Elam costars as a second man in the marshal’s custody.
Character is revealed as Indians constantly attack the group, killing both men and horses. The supposed criminals played by Sullivan and Elam prove to be among the most courageous in the group, with Sullivan also finding time to romance the tempestuous Freeman, who has previously been poorly matched with O’Keefe and then Adams.
Sullivan, as is often the case in his career, comes close to stealing the movie from a fine cast. His character has wonderful bits of business, such as spending quieter moments playing cards with the marshal. Elam is also a particular standout as a grizzled bad guy who comforts a little girl (Judy Stranges) found by the group.
Director Harold Schuster keeps the action moving briskly. This CinemaScope film was shot in Utah by William Clothier, known for his work on many films produced by or starring John Wayne. Look for screenwriter Douglas in a small role as Jud.
Dragoon Wells Massacre has had a Region 2 release in Germany but has not yet had an authorized home viewing release in the United States. I very much hope that one day it will be more widely available.
Four Fast Guns (William J. Hole Jr., 1960)
Late in his film career, former MGM leading man James Craig did some terrific work in “B” Westerns, including a supporting role in Man or Gun (1958), one of the films highlighted in my previous “Hidden Gems” column.
Craig stars in Four Fast Guns, a brisk 72-minute tale of gunslinger Tom Sabin, who kills a “town tamer” in self-defense and then takes the man’s job bringing law to the aptly named Western town of Purgatory.
A wheelchair-bound saloon owner (Paul Richards) has reasons for not wanting the town to be cleaned up and writes to three different hired killers, offering a fee to the man who kills Sabin. It’s noteworthy that one of the hired guns is played by Richard Martin, best known as Tim Holt‘s sidekick Chito in a long series of RKO “B” Westerns. It was Martin’s final film.
The movie has some echoes of Audie Murphy‘s Ride a Crooked Trail (1958), with the seeming bad guy proving to be the man standing for justice, and there are also echoes of Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now (1956) in the economically filmed yet quite entertaining ways Sabin takes out would-be assassins.
Craig brings a world-weary authority and underlying sadness to his role, a part light years away from his easy-going leading man roles of the ’40s. I especially loved Craig’s unexpected scenes with the final gunman (Brett Halsey) to arrive in Purgatory.
Four Fast Guns was also the last film for actress Martha Vickers, well known to film noir fans for The Big Sleep (1946). She’s interesting as the saloon owner’s wife who is attracted to Sabin, though the role is somewhat underwritten; viewers watching closely will note that she almost never interacts with her husband, though they’re in many of the same scenes. I would have liked Vickers’ character to be better fleshed out in the screenplay, but otherwise, this is quite a well-written film, authored by James Edmiston and Dallas Gaultois.
Edgar Buchanan also adds nice touches as the town drunk who proves to be Sabin’s ally.
There’s nothing better than watching a relatively unknown film like this “cold” and discovering a very worthwhile movie. Four Fast Guns is a wonderful example of a minor film that provides rewarding Western viewing.
Four Fast Guns is available on DVD from VCI Entertainment.
— Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.